America Safer From Foreign Threats Under Trump—Cmdr. Kirk Lippold USN (Ret.)

March 14, 2019 Updated: April 5, 2019

America’s foreign policy and military engagement around the world—particularly in the Middle East—has changed dramatically under President Donald Trump. Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, who was the commanding officer of the USS Cole when it was attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists in 2000, gives his perspective on America’s current state of national security.

Once a member of the War on Terrorism Division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lippold is now a political commentator on matters of national security. He gives his expert opinion on the ISIS retreat in Syria, Iran, and other state sponsors of terrorism and how the safety of the United States on the world stage stands now compared to 10 years ago.

Jan Jekielek:  So, I want to talk about Syria. It’s in the headlines that the last ISIS strongholds are being eliminated as we speak today by Kurdish forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition. Give us a picture of how you see this situation. Can this actually be the case that ISIS is very close to being eliminated?

Kirk Lippold:  I think what you’re really going to see is the ISIS combat capability slowly being whittled away and eventually eliminated. While ISIS may live on as an ideology, their ability to now project power, gain territory, influence areas, and continue the wholesale slaughter that we were seeing for years, is going to be stopped. There are probably going to be ISIS-inspired attacks after this, but the real capability that was resident with [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and his ability to take over that huge swath of territory in northern Syria and Iraq is essentially going to be eliminated.

Mr. Jekielek: So, we’ve heard different things about what’s going to happen with U.S. forces. We heard potentially they will be leaving altogether, and more recently, we’ve been hearing there’s going to be a presence maintained. Can you perhaps unpackage that for us?

Mr. Lippold: Absolutely. What you saw is that as ISIS was being reduced, the president saw an opportunity for the U.S. to say, “OK, let’s bring the troops home.” I think that when he held that conversation with President Erdogan in Turkey, he saw an opportunity right then and there to disengage, be able to pull back, and bring those troops home out of northern Syria. In reality, I think as time has gone on and he has gotten a little bit better briefing before that phone call, he now realizes that our forces there serve a very strategic interest for the United States. Not so much for ISIS and their ability for a resurgence and be able to take territory, but we want to be able with our presence to be able to ensure that the training of the forces that we’ve invested that have eliminated ISIS to continue. But more importantly, we want to make sure those allies are protected. The people who have been at that tip of that spear eliminating ISIS really have been the Syrian Resistance forces and the Kurds.

The Kurds, of course, by Turkey are considered terrorists no matter who they are. And if Turkey were to be able to have their say they’d go in and they would wipe them out wholesale, regardless of the slaughter that may ensue. In reality, the United States by choosing now … I think the president is beginning to see that there is value in staying there because number one, if those forces that have eliminated ISIS continue to exist in that area to keep a lid on any resurgence it serves two purposes: One, [Syrian leader Bashar] Assad can’t move back into northern Syria with the help of the Russians and the Iranians. Plus, it eliminates Turkey from coming in and killing all the Kurds who have been our principal fighters and creating that buffer zone that they would like to see because they would like to see the downfall of the Assad regime, which is not going to happen. So, our staying there serves a very long-term strategic interest with a minimal investment in forces to ensure that capability and training stays resident so that if there were a resurgence of ISIS we have the ability along with our coalition partners to immediately eliminate it.

Mr. Jekielek:  This is essentially a small presence but not as symbolic, it’s very, very tactical in a sense, right?

Mr. Lippold: Absolutely.

Mr. Jekielek: How big of a force are we talking about here?

Mr. Lippold:  I think we’ll have to really see what we can go down to. We don’t want to go too far, and obviously, we need to work with our coalition partners. But I see 100 to 500 troops being in there. But what we want to do is reduce that footprint to a point that with our coalition partners the capability remains, the long-term strategic interests are guarded, and that while it may be tactical in nature, it obviously has strategic impact.

Mr. Jekielek:  You, yourself have actually felt the impact of radical Islamic terrorism. Of course with your experience with the USS Cole. We’ve also heard at some point that Al-Qaeda was on the verge of being on the run, on the verge of being eliminated, or eliminated. Yes, it seems like the mantle is taken by another group, by ISIS, and others. How are we going to prevent that from happening this time?

Mr. Lippold:  I think what the United States needs to look at is we have to have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to terrorists. When you look at the Cole in the context of history up until then, all those embassies, all those attacks that we had, the Beirut barracks, World Trade Center, the embassy bombings—those were attacks against things that housed and represented U.S. interests. Cole was fundamentally different because it was an attack on our ability to defend our national interests. They were trying to eliminate that capability, so that they could spread their caliphate throughout the world. When it comes to the U.S., if you harm or you kill an American, we’re going to come after you wherever you are, whatever nation is harboring you, and we’re going to do one of two things: We’re going to capture you if we think you’re of intelligence value, or we’re going to kill you.

And we just have to make it clear to the world that we’re going to stand by that for the long term. I think President Bush had it right. This is a generational fight. But what we have to do is make these terrorists realize that that is an unsustainable way of getting anybody to do things their way. That it is not how you work in the real world, that you have to engage with policies and that you can sit there and have all the religious doctrine you want. They radicalize the Islamic religion. But, at the end of the day, the United States must stay firm in saying that is not going to be a viable approach for you to take, and the world stands by that as well. I mean even the Chinese, even the Russians, our partners in Europe have a zero tolerance policy toward terrorism. And we have to continue to sustain that as well.

Mr. Jekielek: More than two years ago no one could have imagined that ISIS could be eliminated to the level that it is eliminated. What happened?

Mr. Lippold: I think that several years ago, what people didn’t realize is we just took a step back. We once again underappreciated the threat, just like we underappreciated the threat that Al-Qaeda represented to this nation. The attack on the Cole, an attack on our ability to defend our national interests worldwide. The same with ISIS.

We did not realize that this could explode so rapidly, we lowered our guard as did the world because we still have this somewhat antiquated approach toward fighting these guys where we sit and say it needs to be state-on-state. These are state-supported actors. There’s no such thing as a terrorist organization that doesn’t have state sponsors. The money flows from somewhere, as do the arms, and we need to realize that we need to go after these state actors that continue to support them. We’re 18 years into the war against Al-Qaeda. Yet, they have continued to grow and spread. Whether it’s in Africa in the Maghreb, whether it is Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whether it is the true Al-Qaeda as it exists today still in Saudi Arabia—we need to make sure that we’re holding these nations accountable that continue to fund them.

Mr. Jekielek: But what about ISIS over these last two years specifically? How has their reach and their power been reduced so dramatically? What changed in the policy that allowed for that?

Mr. Lippold: It’s a great question. I think what you really saw was the world invest the resources necessary to eliminate, first and foremost, their combat capability. And in doing so, that regained the territory. What it also did was send a signal to the world that ISIS is not this completely invulnerable religious force that is now beginning to spread and dominate throughout the region. What they began to realize that it was vulnerable, that it was not infallible, that it could be defeated, and that, in fact, the ideology was not going to hold it up. So what you see is the combat capability being eliminated, which then was leveraged into regaining the territory that was lost, which then people called into question the actual basis by which the ideology was going after those people and that territory. And now that it’s virtually eliminated these fighters are fighting for what? Where’s al-Baghdadi? He’s gone. He’s absent. He’s hiding. He’s in fear. Well, if you’re the leader of ISIS, and you can’t even fight and die with your own men who are willing to die for your cause, what’s that really say? You didn’t believe in it from the beginning.

Mr. Jekielek: So, you’ve been referencing the Cole which is now I guess 19 years ago, and it was in 2000 and how it changed what the terrorists were willing to do. Can you expand a little bit on your experience of what happened and how you dealt with it?

Mr. Lippold: Sure. The attack on the Cole, personally, changed my life. And when I look back on it, the fallout from it that I observed in the time in the months and years afterward was literally you had an American people that did not appreciate the threat, we had two presidents, President Clinton and President Bush—one Democrat, one Republican—two separate administrations that did nothing in response. President Clinton kept raising the bar to respond to the attack on Cole—17 sailors dead and 37 wounded—and got out of office doing nothing. President Bush, unfortunately, came into office with an attitude of “Hey, we’re forward-looking, not backward-acting.” Even the Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz said the information was stale. Excuse me. But at the end of the day, what you ended up happening is the American people 11 months later would tragically realize that that threat—our ability to actually wage a war against a non-state international terrorist organization—had to be carried out and executed.

You still, unfortunately, have lawyers today that argue that we should not declare war against non-state entities. I don’t care what the ramifications are in the international politics and law world. I look at it is that we need to invest the resources of a nation as necessary to keep us safe. We can’t take our eye off the ball and while we do have near-peer competitors, principally in China, secondarily Russia, and then and other actors that are building and growing: North Korea which is obviously a China satellite, [while] Iran is trying to destabilize the Middle East. We’re going to have to address those threats, and we’re going to have to develop the capability, invest in the training, as well as the systems to be able to counter those and defeat them decisively, not just parity, decisively.

Mr. Jekielek: You said that event changed your life, but what did you learn? Being there and dealing with the situation, what did you learn about terrorism and the resolve?

Mr. Lippold: We learned that when it comes to operating our forces overseas, we really need to take a hard look at: If we are going to put people into ports, at airports, and into forward operating bases, we need to ask the questions, what are we going to give those forces to defend themselves? You look at it, and it’s what I call peeling the onion back. And you really have to look and say “OK, if you’re going to do that what are the procedures that they need to operate under. What’s the equipment we’re going to give them to defend themselves. What is the training that they’re going to have in order to use those procedures and that equipment? What are the rules of engagement?” And are we giving the commander the necessary flexibility to do all those things? But the principal driver in all of that is going to be the intelligence. What we didn’t know the morning we pulled in to Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 12, 2000, [was that] al-Qaeda had been there for about a year operating from a safe house looking down out over the harbor watching when Navy ships pulled in, what pier they went to, what side they moor to, what boats came out, what path they followed.

Nine months before the attack on the Cole, al-Qaeda had attempted an attack with another boat just like ours—the one that attacked us—and it failed. When they did that, they recovered the boat, the explosives, the trainer, the car, moved to a new safe house and nine months later attacked us. The Navy had never anticipated training or expected a waterborne improvised explosive device with two suicide bombers. And, unfortunately, wrong place, wrong time with bad intelligence that morning. Now, I was blessed with a great crew that did the right thing at the right time and saved that ship and their shipmates and the USS Cole is still operating out there today. So, what you have to look at as a nation in order to safeguard our national security interests, we have to have the leadership in all of our military services, regardless of what they get told in a budget-driven environment today.

[We need] to be honest with our elected representatives and tell them, “This is what it’s going to take to defend the United States and our national security interests.” Congress, of course, is going to come in and say, “Got it. You only get this much.” This piece right here is called risk. The American people need to know, understand, and approve that they’re willing to accept that degree or growing amount of risk today. If not, then we have no choice but to either give the military the weapons they need in order to defend ourselves and the policies to be able to support it with both capability and credibility to use it, or we might as well get off the world stage and then pick: would you prefer to learn Russian or Mandarin Chinese?

Mr. Jekielek: The Cole was off the coast of Yemen. And right now, we’re seeing a lot of people describe as a proxy war over there. You’ve got Saudi, you’ve got Iran. How do you see that situation?

Mr. Lippold:  I think what you’re beginning to see, and this was something that President Obama, to his credit, began to push, and say these Middle East countries have got to stop relying on the United States, expending our blood and treasure to defend them. And when you really look at it, and you’ll take a hard look at Saudi Arabia, they’re encircled. Where is Iran today? They’re with Hezbollah in Lebanon, they’re with the Quds Force training up in Syria. They’re in Iraq, insidiously inserting themselves throughout the government and the military there as an influence force, not a proxy force. When you come down and look at Yemen to the south, they are there supporting the Huthi rebels there that have toppled the government that was Saudi Arabia-supported. So, Saudi Arabia is essentially encircled. Well, we’re happy to give you training and capability if you don’t like what Iran’s doing. We have a vested interest to ensure that Iran does not gain more capability and influence in that region, but our partners over there—those Gulf Cooperation Council members—have got to step up. And if they, in fact, see Iran as a threat to their national security interests, they’re going to have to do something. For years, they’ve let this problem fester. I don’t want to see it come to a head, and hopefully, we can use other influences. But the fact is, Iran has gained that influence because other countries over there have been unwilling to expend their blood and treasure to stop it.

Mr. Jekielek:  So, what about the reneging on the Iran deal. How do you see that then in light of what you just said?

Mr. Lippold: There wasn’t a reneging on it. What you really saw was a president who came in, and I’m one of those people that actually sat down, printed it out and read the 156 pages of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement. It was a bad agreement. It was bad from the start. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry were so desperate to negotiate a deal that they essentially compromised this nation’s ability to defend itself. They put Israel at risk. They put the region and the world at risk. It was still a pathway to a bomb. All they did was give them a 10-year break. It didn’t take away their research and development facilities, [and] it did not give us the ability to inspect military bases where probable nuclear activity was still going on. So, essentially from A to Z, it was a bad agreement. At some point, you have to say “This was not good, it was against our national interests, it never should have been negotiated.” But sometimes that’s what you get when you have a collaborative group. Everybody wants to compromise down to the lowest denominator.

The United States can’t afford to do that. Our national security interests as a leader in the free world have to take precedence, and we’re gonna be out there. The fact that the Europeans still want to continue to do it, well, that’s only because they have a vested interest, having agreed to something that was bad to begin with. With the new leadership, we need to look at it say, “Let’s go forward.” If the Iranians don’t want to negotiate, they want to restart a nuclear program, there will be consequences for doing that.

Mr. Jekielek:  Do you think the current policies are working?

Mr. Lippold:  I think the current policies are slowly working. I think we’re still trying to build up that groundswell of support for the fact that President Trump pulled out of the agreement, for what are very sound national-security reasons, but make sure that people understand and get on board with the fact that the Iranians negotiated in bad faith. They know it. And while they did get a good agreement from their point of view, we did not. Time to renegotiate.

Mr. Jekielek:  So, do you think America, and Americans are safer now in the world than they were 10 years ago?

Mr. Lippold: I think 10 years ago, we felt safer. Today, I think we are safer. And part of the reason is we have a president who clearly has indicated and demonstrated that he is willing to take action. When President Obama drew a red line against chemical weapons use in Syria, and they did it, he did nothing. When you look at when chemical weapons were used by the Syrians during the Trump administration, we raced two guided missile destroyers across the eastern Mediterranean, put them in the launch baskets, and fired the Tomahawks off necessary to eliminate that capability and said, “Do it again, we’ll act again. Russia, stop!” You cannot support someone that continues to do this. Nonetheless, Syria clearly has continued to use chemical weapons as demonstrated by chlorine gas and others, and they are willing to do it. And, at some point, he’s going to be held to account for it.

Mr. Jekielek: So, given all this, what policy recommendations do you have that will actually be beneficial for Americans and for the rest of the world against this terrorist threat in the Middle East?

Mr. Lippold:  I think the best thing we can do, initially, is to support the nations that are over there that we’re still allied with, from Saudi Arabia on down. Make them understand what the national-security interests are of the United States and other allies, whether it is from the Far East in Japan through the Europeans that continue to get oil from that region to power their economies. Make them understand that we will help you, we will help safeguard you, and we will push to get you the resources, the training, and the capability so that you can defend yourself against the insidious nature that Iran is trying to put over there in influencing the region, in surrounding them, and making them feel like they’re vulnerable. Give them the capability that if Iran were to block the Strait of Hormuz, which they have always threatened since 1979 to do, to cut off the world’s oil supply that those nations, in fact, have the capability to reopen that strait without U.S. help. And while we’ll be there to leverage it and do that obviously as with the rest of the world, let’s start developing that capability over there in a manner that serves their national-security interests as well as ours.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that America should basically uphold its alliance with Saudi Arabia. There’s been a lot of questions about that, especially in the media, given the murder of journalists, the Saudi journalist, and so forth. Can you speak to that?

Kirk Lippold: All I would say is that, regrettably, the United States, like every nation, must occasionally work with people who are bad actors and have done bad things. Clearly, the killing of [Jamal] Khashoggi, as a occasional contributor to The Washington Post, had done, I think, a lot of the excitement that you saw in the media and the drive you saw was it was something they wanted to try and leverage more for political purposes against President Trump than an actual horrific nature of what they did, which it was, while terrible and there is no excuse for doing that. At the end of the day, there are ways to deal with that that don’t need to be splashed on the front page of the newspaper.

The United States has a lot of influence that they can put onto the Saudi government to bring them in line and say that type of behavior—those types of actions—are wholly unacceptable in how we’re going to do business. The Saudis are not going to wholesale pick up, give up on the United States, turn to Russia, and begin to buy arms from them. I know a lot of people have looked at that. That really isn’t going to happen because they, while they may be occasionally mistrustful of the United States, they fear Russia because they know that Russia will absolutely be ruthless, if they were to ever get into any kind of fight and would probably abandon them.

Mr. Jekielek:  You also mentioned I think earlier in the interview that Assad isn’t going away. How should America deal with Assad?

Mr. Lippold:  I think we should apply as much economic pressure and other means to make sure that no countries deal with him, that he continues to remain isolated, that the countries that support him—principally Iran and Russia—have sanctions and consequences by other nations, as well to make them realize that, hey you need to figure out a way to have a transition in power away from that brutal dictator. Russia wants to stay there, principally, for one reason: Tartus. It is a warm-water port in the Mediterranean that they have used for decades, from the days of the Soviet Union to be able, if necessary, to project power into the western Mediterranean. We need to make sure the Russians understand we’re not looking at taking away your warm-water port. We are, however, looking at getting rid of a brutal dictator and having a transition of power, where you can continue to remain engaged there to a point, but not to gain the kind of influence in the region that you think you should have.

When you look at it, while Americans may have felt safe 10 years ago, the hard-line reality is we were beginning to have an administration coming into office that began to do things that would have second- and third-order effects that, in fact, would make us less safe. We took a principal intelligence-gathering facility in Guantanamo Bay and attempted to close it, and a bipartisan group of senators and congressmen said absolutely not. We’re not going to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terrorists; we have to have that facility exist. Then it went on during that administration where they were negotiating with Iran, the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, for a nuclear agreement that ultimately as you go through the administration would be closed out in desperation, where we would negotiate away the future safety of not only the United States but Israel as well. Then, you also had a president who drew red lines and then let the countries violate them: chemical use in Syria.

So, while Americans may have felt safe, the groundwork was being laid that actually around the world, people were wondering what the United States really stands for? What are they really willing to do to safeguard not only their national security interests but ours as well? Because it appears they’re drawing lines that mean nothing, negotiating away something as vital as nuclear weapons. So when President Trump came in … I don’t care how and what he tweets, when you look at the facts of what he is doing, if he says he’s going to do it, he is going to work to make it happen. If you draw a red line, he stands by it. If he says he’s going to come after you because you kill Americans, he’s going to do it.

And the principal example of that: We’re coming up on the 19-year anniversary of the attack on USS Cole, and yet one of the principal guys involved in facilitating that attack, al-Badawi, was taken out right at the turn of the new year. That means for 18 years our intelligence community watched, waited, and until they had that moment, without any collateral damage; under this president, they did what was necessary [and] took him out. That’s a huge investment because it tells the world that we will find you, we will hunt you down, and when we hunt you down we’re going to capture you, or we’re going to kill you. The two things that President Trump brings to office today that didn’t exist before is, once again, we are seeing the capability in the military and the intelligence communities to keep this nation safe.

But, more importantly, the credibility that he will use it to defend this nation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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